Where the Scum of Your Character Will Come to the Surface

Blog 49 by Mick: Where the Scum of Your Character Will Come to the Surface

The 30-day limit put on our motorcycle importation permits was a real spanner in the works for us. When we arrived in Ethiopia, the customs guy had asked me how long we intended to stay, to which I had casually replied “ahh about a month maybe”, not foreseeing the complications this would bring. No other country we had visited to date had any customs limitations bar the validity of our visa and carnet de passage i.e. we and our motorcycles could stay as long as our visa and carnet were valid. Sounds sensible, yeah?

So the customs guy took my ‘small talk’ reply as gospel and filled in a form that I immediately gave no notice. It was only in Lalibela about 2 and a half weeks later when we were flicking through our paperwork that we gave it a second glance. What the? 30 days? That meant we had to be out of the country in less than 2 weeks! And our visa was still valid for another 7 weeks!


Some of the views looking down on the road south from Lalibela


So, as Tan mentioned in our last post, we either had to leave the country before the customs voucher expired or extend it; if not, we risked some repercussions. Tan was still desperate to see the Danakil Depression, which is essentially a porn show for geologists in the very north-east of the country. We estimated we couldn’t get there, organise and do a 4 day tour, and get back along our intended route down the west side of the Omo Valley and exit at Omorate in the very south-west, all within 12 days. At least not without madly rushing things. A 630km trip south to Addis Ababa it would have to be.

So we hit the road mid morning with some trepidation. I would have liked to have taken a dirt road south into the back of Dessie but due to an incomplete gpx track I didn’t know where it started from this end. Plus, we were in a bit of a rush so figured we would grin and bear the tar in the interest a swifter travel. So we took the same bit of highway south that we had issues with when we came north, however this time as it was not raining, more of the rock throwing, stick wielding, whip cracking riff raff were out.


Some lovely riding on the dirt on the way to Waldiya


The first section of the route, which is dirt to the top of the pass that descends 1200m vertically to the town of Waldiya in the Amhara lowlands, is a beautiful stretch of road. Thankfully we had minimal issues to spoil that serenity, only one rock from a group of shouting kids, but they seemed bored more than anything. We also had the pleasant experience of some people waving and yelling “welcome” as we rode by. As we discussed in the Harar post, it was the disorientating, paradoxical nature of Ethiopia on display once again – hostility in one instance, yet kindness 20 seconds later. But after the descent, things started to go badly.

After a while, we stopped committing all the incidents to memory. There were simply too many so a sense of hierarchy gets introduced. While in isolation some angry guy coming out and shouting at you and waving his fist might be pretty shocking; it simply doesn’t matter anymore when the next guy has a cattle whip and tries to strike you with it. Or someone runs out onto the road and tries to do a big running fly kick at you. Or someone spits at you, and I don’t mean that they spit towards you, but they see you coming and walk out onto the road to try and get close enough to actually spit on you as you ride by. We had all these things happen, and many many more, in the 160km stretch between Waldiya and Dessie that day.


Nearing the top of the pass before descending to Waldiya


At one point I was leading and the intercom came on and I hear Tanya yelling at the top of her lungs. I turned around and went back to find her off the bike screaming in a rage at some kids I could see running off into a field. Turns out she had 4 separate incidents of kids coming out onto the road with cattle whips to crack at her within 20 minutes. She had to swerve to avoid being struck on each occasion and on the last time she lost her temper. I had the odd whip incident in that time, however the second bike always cops the worst of it as the feral little fiends have time to hatch their evil little plans. It got to poor Tan so she went in front for a while.

It was mid afternoon when we rolled into Dessie. We had only travelled 230kms from Lalibela, however at a safe Ethiopian road pace that is 4 and a half hours, and we had had enough. We stopped to have some lunch and chill out, and after a drawn out meal and one round of coffee after another we were simply unable to will ourselves to get on the bikes. So we said ‘bugger it’ and resolved to drink beer and spend the night. We had experienced more than enough Ethiopia for one day, and to make matters worse Tanya was starting to feel ill.

With a sense of resignation we packed and got on the bikes the next morning. Probably like what an inmate on death-row feels like the morning of his execution – “this is gonna happen whether I want it to or not so lets just get it done”. The day actually started well after a friendly cop directed us to the next town which had the only fuel station with petrol in the region.

But it didn’t last long. Not 15km later, a guy with a snarl on his face and an empty 20 litre plastic drum in his hand came out onto the road and swung it at me as I went by. Tanya, who was 20m behind, saw it, started yelling and pointing at him as she road by, but it didn’t stop him doing the same to her. And so it went. Rocks. Whips. Sticks. Shouts and screams. We got it all. And that is in addition to the usual assortment of donkeys, horses, cows, goats, sheep and non-observant pedestrians randomly wandering all over the road. I don’t mean to make riding a motorcycle in Ethiopia sound horrible, because it isn’t; it is worse than that*.

We stopped to stretch our legs and have some lunch, and were set upon by a gang of small children demanding money. With all our compassion and empathy beaten out of us in a tempest of rocks, they got a firm “piss off!” from us. Yep… we were swearing at children. On the brighter side, lunch was cheap and the service was friendly. Many cups of sweet local tea and some bread for the two of us all for less than a dollar.

In this instance however, it’s not just the cheapness of the lunch but the fact we got local price with no haggling and no bullshit that was most pleasant. Ethiopia, like many places, has local prices and tourist prices, but here it is a little different. Tourist prices aren’t just an unscrupulous way to rip of people who don’t know any better; it is actually institutionalised and until a recent law change, quite legal. That said, it still stubbornly persists and if you point out the fact it is illegal to charge people differently based on race, you get blank stares and sheepish looks, but no adjustment in price. We even heard expats complain how even after showing their residency permits in their passports and arguing in fluent Amharic; doesn’t matter, farenji (foreigners) pay farenji price.

So in most places in Ethiopia where there is any chance a foreigner might one day turn up, you can walk into a hotel and behind reception there will be a list of rooms with two columns next to it; Ethiopian price, and farenji price. Generally it is 30-50% more. Many restaurants do the same with menus. So it is refreshing when you get treated like everyone else and not like a supermarket lolly machine that gets incessantly bashed by the naughty kids in the hope that a free sweet might drop out.

When we stopped outside the little restaurant, one of the older kids motioned to us that he could look after the bikes while we were inside. There were plenty of kids about and we were sick of having our bikes and luggage played with, plus we like to reward such initiative in the face of so much begging. So we gave him a nod and pointed at the bikes and left him to it. While having lunch we noticed said kid had somehow procured a whip and was starting to threaten and sometimes beat other children when then came near the motorcycles. Soon anyone who came near, he would crack his whip at and chase away, and then look inside at us for approval.

At first we were bewildered as to the excessive use of force, then amused at the vigour he took on in his self appointed role, then a little horrified when it started to escalate to the point he was trying to chase down and belt anyone he could find. At one stage, a woman walked past the bikes and didn’t even give them a sideways glance as she continued doing what she was doing, and the little tyrant chased after her and cracked his whip at her she walked away. While she didn’t even bat an eyelid at such a threat, it was too much for me at that point I went out and yelled at him and he backed off.

We dubbed him “Mini-Mengistu” after the Colonel and leader of the ‘Derg’ communist government of Ethiopia through the 70’s and 80’s known for its oppressive and violent police state tactics. The name seemed all the more applicable as what was playing out in front of us seemed a rather pertinent micro-analogue of many African politicians. Some power-hungry muppet put in a position of power and financially supported by a foreign entity – once their position has secured and weapons are gained they tend to go on a violent rampage to cement their position. The thought of our tiny and unintentional social experiment demonstrating so well the woes of “African strong man politics” gave us a good chuckle and strong sense of unease.

As we went to leave we tipped Mini-Mengistu 3 or 4 birr, less than 20c, which he seemed happy with and lowered his whip defenses. This point wasn’t missed by all the kids he had threatened and he ran off with kiddie mob in tow. This fitted quite nicely with the comparison to a full grown African dictator, however this kid ran off to his mum’s hut rather than a chateau in the south of France, or a heavily guarded Harare mansion as is the case with the real Mengistu. Just for the record, the real Mengistu is responsible for between 500,000 and 2,000,000 deaths but is to this day protected by his best mate and fellow uber-arsehole Robert Mugabe, so its probably something we shouldn’t be joking about.

Refreshed after some food and tea, we hit the road. We had knocked off about 150km in 3 hours with lunch and only had about 250km more to do; then we could hide in the safety of Wim’s Holland House, a well known overlander and expat haunt in downtown Addis Ababa. We didn’t have to deal with as much antisocial behavior after that but I did have 2 close calls with donkeys.

The first was a donkey meandering down the road on a blind corner, when a car coming from the other direction scared it into my lane. I stopped to recover from the near-miss and turned to see the owners of the donkey wandering down the road in complete apathy regarding the accident their dumb animal and lazy inattention had nearly caused. That is one significant problem with traffic being forced to pay for the death of stock on the road; there is no incentive to keep animals off the road and not cause accidents. In fact, there is the exact opposite, especially if the animal is old or the poor sod that hits it is foreign.

Which leads neatly into the second donkey near-miss. I was following Tan from maybe 100m as she rode past two adolescents driving a loaded donkey down the side of road. The donkey was well behaved as Tanya went past, however as I neared it suddenly turned 90 degrees and ran onto the road, with me only just avoiding it at 70kph with aggressive counter steering. We had heard stories of animals being driven onto the roads to get hit before, preferably by foreigners, and I’d bet a large sum of money that this incident was exactly that.

And now, only one more hostility story (for now anyway) before this deteriorates into a whinging bore-fest. And I’ve saved the best for last… or maybe it was Ethiopia that saved it’s best for last. Either way, here goes…

In the relatively busy little town of Robit, about 215km north of Addis we were dealing with more that the usual throng of pedestrians and animals wandering all over road. It must have been market day as it was quite busy and we were crawling along clutching 1st gear at about 20kph. Tan was leading and probably only 20m in front but I was way too busy paying attention to all the activity on the road to see what she was doing. Right in the very thick of it all I see a guy staring at me from the side of the road. I can see he is standing on the very edge of the tar doing nothing, just focused intently on the bike as I ride closer and closer…

At the very last second he takes one enormous exaggerated step out onto the road directly into my path and stops. Luckily the fool has mis-timed his step and as I was travelling so slowly I managed to haul up the bike with wheels screeching maybe 15cm before I hit him. I understood immediately what he is up to – this cretin is one of the people of legend who try to get hit by foreigners. We actually met a South African biker who hit a guy while riding through Ethiopia which we discussed in detail in our 19th post linked here (the last couple paragraphs at the end). In a nutshell, getting hit by foreigners is a known money making scam, and it cost this South African guy over USD1000 and a few days incarcerated.

Anyway, I start to shout at him for almost causing a traffic accident, and he walks past me on my left hand side. He is so incredibly drunk he can barely walk at all. He stumbles behind the bike, and I’m twisting to my left to see him and feel this thump in the back of my helmet. The guy has king hit me right in the back of the head. Thankfully he is so weedy and drunk he lacks power and with the helmet I’m afforded a lot of protection, however as I was twisting at the time so the blow still jars my neck. I drop the clutch and launch forward 5 metres, then slam on the brakes, turn the ignition off and put the kickstand down all in one motion.

That is it… After all the shit we have copped in this country; all the rocks and whips and sticks and scams and feral behavior, all the hatred, I’ve not just hit my limit, I am way past rational thought and have snapped clean in two.

I’ve got my left leg on the peg and I’m starting to swing my right leg over my luggage when the intercom comes on. “DON’T GET OFF THE BIKE!!” Tan yells. I look forward at her, she is parked not 20m in front, and then look over to my right and drunk guy is standing with about 15 or 20 other adults who are all screaming and pointing at us. They are quite a few who are gesticulating violently at us. There are probably that number again just looking on gawking. It was undeniably hostile and seemed on the brink of a mob situation…

I’ll interrupt my perspective of this story and swap to Tanya’s for just a bit. 15 seconds previous to all this she had been riding through the same busy horde of people when some guy stepped onto the road out of nowhere and stood there looking at her, and she had swerved hard to miss him; it was very close but she snuck past. She quickly found a spot to pull over and pressed the intercom button to warn me about him. As she did, she turned and saw the same guy she had just missed standing in front of me stopped in the middle of the road. He then walked down my left hand side and around the back of the bike and takes an almighty swing into the back of my helmet.

Anyway, back to my perspective; so I sit back down on the bike and shout back at the drunk freak who is making a big show of the fact he hit the foreigner in the back of the head, but am drowned out by him and the 20 or so people at his side who are screaming back. We are well and truly outnumbered. I pull out my iPhone and take a few photos of the cacophony, which has the instant effect I was hoping – everyone backs off and quite a few immediately turn and leave.

Talking on the intercom, we decide we have to leave while we can. Within about 800m we find a police checkpoint, and Tan is off the bike before I even see it. No one speaks English but using sign language she communicates that I have been assaulted back down the road and it rouses a minimal level of interest from the police. But someone appears from nowhere who can speak English and starts to interpret, saying we should take them to the scene of the incident.

So we go back and the angry mob is still shouting and screaming and pointing at me when I park the bike. Then they see the tuk-tuk arrive with the police officer and everyone stops and changes, like when the full moon hides behind a cloud in a werewolf movie. She and the English speaking guy get out and some people actually come up in some sort of show of support. The sight of a police uniform has transformed these people from horrid to helpful in an instant.

We explain through the interpreter what happened and a rough description of the assailant. One of our newly acquired ‘friends’ confirms “he run down there, he is gone” pointing at an alley. The helper, the interpreter and the cop talk for a while in Amharic, and I get the impression our new helper mate who not so long ago was screaming at us explained the whole incident. The interpreter says we can make a police report but we have to go to the police station. Tan and I quickly discuss if we spent the time to file a police report we wouldn’t make it to Addis that afternoon. We just wanted to get off the road and into Addis, so we left. In retrospect I wish we had made the formal report.

We ride off in a fume, I can’t believe my helmet didn’t melt there was so much steam coming from my ears. Tanya was no better. Not far later we ascend about 600m back up into the highlands. It’s a nice ride with lots of great twisties and foggy yet stunning views. We ride past people on the defensive, waiting for them to scream and shout and be horrible, and while we do cop a little bit of shit on the whole they are just indifferent. In the highlands we are just road traffic again like everyone else. It was almost night and day difference compared to what we had experienced over the last 200kms. As with earlier struggles on the road, they all happened en masse in the lowlands. Up in the highlands things were ok in comparison.

It was a pretty easy ride from there on, helped by the fact it started to rain which meant the pedestrian and animal traffic reduced significantly and we made much better time because of it. We hit a near empty 4 lane highway and before we knew it we were on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Although pretty congested when we hit the late afternoon rush hour traffic, it was reasonably straight forward finding our way around. The roads and pretty much all the infrastructure in Addis are underwhelming to say the least. Dominated by Stalinesque concrete monstrosities, it struck us as a bit of an ugly place even by African capital standards.


post 49 map
The blue arrows is the route we travelled south, and the red is the route we travelled north again.


We checked into a room at Wim’s Holland House and discussed our plan for the immediate weeks – Tan still wanted to sort out the import permit for the bikes and then head north to the geological wonders of the Danikil Depression. She simply didn’t want to miss it and reasoned it was now or never as she was adamant she never wanted to set foot in this country again. I just wanted to go however. I was over it; as far as I was concerned there was simply no point staying in a place you are not welcome, no matter how nice the attractions. I was sick of being provoked to a near permanent state of rage, and ironically I angry with myself for how furious I had become. In all our years of travelling the world, Ethiopia being the 54th nation I have visited, we had never experienced anything remotely like this.

This point came up a few times with long term expats as we vented our frustrations at Wim’s, and we got a considerable degree of nods and understanding. When a lifelong missionary who has dedicated their existence to improving the lives of locals can admit they have been tormented to a point they were worried they could strangle someone, you realise you are not alone in your experiences. They told us there was a saying about Ethiopia; that it is a place “where the scum of your character will come to the surface”. Like many maxims, we found it based in truth.

The question of our immediate route was decided, for the short term at least, by Tanya developing a full blown cold. If we were going to be stuck for a few days while she got well enough to move again it made sense to at least sort out the paperwork on the off chance we needed it. After tracking down the Customs Headquarters we quickly found ourselves in a real life game of pinball, getting jettisoned from building to building and office to office.

In ‘Building C’ for 2nd time (the 5th building we had visited) they tried to send us back to ‘Building A’, but we refused to move and pleaded for help, and finally someone offered to escort us. After another trip to ‘Building A’ we did indeed end up back in ‘Building C’, third time lucky, and found the right office. The big boss who could sign off on the extension of the Temporary Import Permit had given himself a Friday afternoon early mark, so we got the great news that we needed to come back Monday.**


The crack in my fuel tank under the right hand wing after cleaning up


Sorry for the shitty photo, I cleaned up the area as best I could and scratched off all of the surface plastic before starting


While Tanya was in bed drowning in snotty tissues, I kept myself busy with a few little jobs. I fixed our petrol stove pump which had a leaking o-ring and then got to fixing my fuel tank properly. In Lalibela I tried to waterproof the soap with some duct tape, which kind of worked but was hardly worth the effort. The duct tape didn’t stick very well and the rain we had received coming into Addis had washed away enough soap that the crack was starting to weep a little.


Low tech at its best, tyre iron on the petrol stove…


Trimmed off bits of plastic all cleaned up and ready to use as filler


I drained the tank again into Tanya’s bike, cleaned up the whole show, and sliced off a bunch of plastic from the back of the tank to use as filler. I opened my tool roll and found a big hunk of steel with an appropriately shaped tip; a tyre iron, and put it on the petrol stove. The first run I just pushed the hot tyre iron into the crack to fuse the 2 sides of it together. Then I started to use the filler to build up the weld over the crack. And this was where it started to get tricky.


First run, weld both sides of the crack together to seal it


Final product. I cut off quite a lot more filler material and built up the weld over the crack maybe 4 or 5mm.


Bear in mind I was just doing this by feel, having never seen it done before. So getting the right amount of heat in the job took some trial and error. At first, I got the iron too hot and the plastic started to go black, so I let it cool off a bit. Then, with the iron a little cooler, I could get the plastic to flow ok but with less heat in the iron I couldn’t do it for long. So it was a constant cycle of heat the iron, slowly run over the tank to pre-heat it, then lay on the filler and melt it in. I could do about 1cm at a time like this before the iron would cool off too much. A very tedious job. I was happy enough with the result but could see that due to lack of heat there were some cold joins, but it didn’t leak anymore. Win.


Some inclement weather in Addis Ababa. We were there during the wet season and got hailed on – luckily only little hail only 5mm or so in diameter. That is Schalk’s XT660Z and Connie and Alex’s old landy.


The road north again. We stuck to the dirt in the highlands in the hope they would be less hostile. We had a good run north with no crap. This was a quick photo stop on a picturesque bridge.


The good news out of all of this is we sent a few emails to the guys at Safari Tanks and were met with incredible customer service. We had just asked for advice on repairing the crack, however they said they would replace it under warranty. I sadly admitted that we bought the now 8yr old tank installed on a secondhand bike so it wouldn’t be covered. Amazingly, Safari considered it a manufacturing fault, so irrespective of its origins they will cover it anyway! You can imagine the relief we felt knowing we weren’t going to have to spend $AU650 on a new one. But of course there was then the small issue of getting it to Africa, with crazy postage/freight quotes and heinous import taxes it became prohibitively expensive, even for a free tank. We agreed to see how successful the tyre iron fix would be, and if we thought we could make it work, we would send the replacement tank on to Europe and meet it there. We only needed to get through another 25,000kms of Africa in the meantime!


The highlands of Ethiopia are hyper-fertile agricultural land, as you can see.


One issue of riding in the highlands – fog


…thick fog…


During all this we reticently resolved to head north to experience the Danikil Depression, however we couldn’t stomach the thought of riding the bikes north another time. It probably sounds ridiculous but we actually looked into taking a bus so we would be isolated from Ethiopia’s rock throwing hostility by a sheet of glass. We went to a few different bus companies but unfortunately everything was full for the next 5 days. That left only one option, to just suck it up, hop on the bikes and try deal with the shit when it was inevitably thrown our way.


Some of the lovely views on the ride north to Dessie


If you like mountain riding, Ethiopia is a decent destination choice


With the courage summoned and decision made to leave the next morning, we came back to Wim’s only to find fellow overlanding friends Schalk on his XT660, who had just come from the Sudan and Egypt, and Connie and Alex in their Series 2A Landrover, waiting for us. Last time we had seen these guys was in Kenya so we decided we would rather stay another day and chat and catch up on stories rather than depart.


The descent down an escarpment about halfway between Addis and Dessie


Who doesn’t like a few hairpins? This dirt route between Dessie and Addis is a great ride; it is about the same distance, has much better views, much nicer people, and due to the lack of traffic and pedestrians, is just as fast as the highway.


So it was the following day at a little after 7am that we left. Hell would freeze over before we would take the main highway north again, so we traced a route that was majority dirt and stuck to the highlands, only dropping into the Amhara lowlands in the final descent to Dessie. It proved to be a lovely ride; very scenic and fun riding on good quality gravel. And the people were no problem, either ignoring us, staring jaw-dropped or waving. We had a good run.


Tan stopped to wait for me while I snapped a few photos, and even on a steep mountain road in the middle of nowhere, kids popped out of the middle of nowhere and mobbed her


A coffee stop in a nothing-nowhere-unnamed village. One thing we noticed in Ethiopia is villages could be very nearby yet have completely different characters. In one particular place, you might get mobbed by onlookers and forcibly asked for money by everyone with a mouth, whereas in a village nearby adults might chase off the kids from hassling you and you are left in complete peace. This was one of the latter, we had a nice stop with some cheap ‘buna’ (Amharic for Ethiopian style coffee) and friendly locals.


We woke to heavy rain the following morning like the last time we were in Dessie heading north, which upset our planned ride north over the mountains on a minor dirt road… also like our last time in Dessie heading north. We waited out the rain for all of the morning in a café and decided to take the more direct route up the highway when the sun came out.


Heading north, see the turned over columnar-jointed basalt in the road cutting? Kids must off they are running up to Tanya who is parked in the shot


There it is…


We had an ok run north to Waldiya with not as many rock-throwing kids as last time. We’d been using the waving-to-distract-the-kids method, which was successful for all but the really naughty ones. Tanya was riding out in front and came across one such group who looked like they would be trouble. They didn’t have time to do anything to Tanya but they were more than ready for me as I came away the tight corner. One of the kids threw a rock while another came out onto the road and cracked his whip at me. This time the bugger got extremely close to my head with Tanya attesting to this by saying she heard the crack of the whip so loudly over the intercom her ears were ringing afterwards.


Some kiddies checking us out. These kids were just curious in the weirdo farenji riding through their area


More nice riding on the way to Dessie on the dirt


I pulled up as fast as I could but the little shits were already running for the hills. I turned around but they were long gone. But for once the terrain favoured us. Just a short scramble from the road the kids were running through some ploughed fields down a relatively flat valley. While I was annoyed yet resigned to the fact that we’d never see those kids again, Tanya was frustrated enough she picked up a couple of rocks and roved the fields yelling at the kids as they kept on running further down the valley. She knew we’d never catch them but thought it might be worth hanging around to scare them.


Great views as we rode up hill and down dale


Check em out!


After Tanya gave up and returned to the bikes we hung around trying to figure out what on Earth was wrong with the people and kids here. Nowhere on Earth is like Ethiopia for this kind of thing and it had us absolutely mystified. While we shared our mutual revulsion at these children while trying to chill out we noticed all the animals near us. These were clearly the animals the kids were supposed to be looking after instead of molesting passing traffic. We had been provoked to the point were I thought a great form of retribution would be steal one of their goats, ride a kilometer or five down the road and give it to someone. It seemed like a great idea in that moment so we got to looking for a small, easily transportable kid goat. However it was only large and recalcitrant goats on offer with a few older kids which looked like they could be trouble when hung over the bike. We kept looking, but with some time for retrospect we realised that stealing a goat off poor Ethiopians was not something we would have ever imagined ourselves doing. We abandoned our evil plan. Ethiopia was having a drastic effect on us.


Pretty much the entire way from Addis to Dessie on the dirt is a potential photo op


See what I mean?


Just then we noticed a couple of men and a woman running down the hills towards us. As we looked around it hit us what the fuss was all about. The animals (a few cows, 4 or 5 donkeys, half a dozen sheep and about a dozen goats) the children were supposed to be looking after were now running amok eating up someone’s seedling patch. It was clear that the kids that had caused us trouble on the bikes could expect a lot of the same coming their way from their parents and neighbours. These kids were going to cop it and it was hard not to think the justice in store for them was not just a little poetic. As the adults cleared the animals from the field, we got on our bikes and left with a clear conscience.


Stunning…. Truly stunning views.


First views of Mt Dajole (3829m asl). I could see a track on the gps to the summit and we were going to be riding right past it… so figured we might have a look-see?


We stopped at Waldiya and had a coffee while we arranged for my torn bike cover to be repaired once more by a guy with a sewing machine working on the street. Our bike covers are completely knackered and so sun damaged they were no longer waterproof and would tear if threatened with a nasty stare. For a trip like ours, a lightweight bike cover while not a ‘must have’ item are right up there on the ‘good to have’ list. The average person is generally speaking less curious about what they can’t see so when the bikes are covered most people just walk on. As much as we’d like to get rid of more stuff the bike covers were far too useful for that.


More nice views as we get closer to Dessie.


The track to the summit of Mt Dajole


While we were waiting for the bike covers a nice young guy with good English started chatting with us. He told us how the people in the town have been waiting for years for a factory (as promised by the government) to open to give people some jobs, but it still hadn’t come. He listed the types of factory he’d like to be built there… textile factory, soap factory, plastics factory… as wistfully as the average first-worlder lists the countries they most want to holiday in. But while many of us can enact our dreams, for the average person in Ethiopia, there is nothing they can do but wait.


It got steep and slippery with moss covered wet rocks making up the track and our fast wearing Golden Tyres GT201 didn’t like it so much


As you can see – Tan’s rear wheel spinning on the exit of this hairpin


The same fellow noticed a bunch of rocks I had conveniently placed in the webbing of my tank bag and asked if they were “for balance”. I told him they were there to threaten kids that threw rocks at us. He translated this for the crowd and they all thought that was hilarious. We told him we had had a lot of trouble with stone throwing on the road from Addis and he asked if this was around Hayk, which is between Dessie and Waldiya and where we copped the worst of it. He explained that this was a place where everyone has this kind of trouble, even Ethiopians. The kids there he said were “very bad” and that “it was not our (as in Tan and I) fault but the government’s fault” they were this way. I don’t know exactly how the government was responsible for these kids acting that way, but he was adamant.


On top! Lovely views in the thin air


Views for miles


But when considering where Hayk is, it did strike a cord with a book I had recently finished reading by Peter Gill called “Foreigners and Famine: Ethiopia since Live Aid”***, an easy-reading non-fiction on Ethiopia’s recent history. The book drew a link between famine and hostility to foreigners that made a lot of sense. Ethiopians, due to their unique culture and history are a proud people, yet are incredibly poor and dependent on the outside world through aid. And while plenty of other countries in Africa also receive aid, no other country relies on it to the extent as Ethiopia both in terms of fiscal and food relief; there is no other way to describe it then it is the cornerstone of their economy. No other country is as synonymous with famine and Aid as Ethiopia, and Ethiopians know it.


The view down Mt Dajole to the north


Tan descending back down the track


In other parts of Africa, kids would tell us how they wanted to go to school and be a doctor, teacher or engineer. In Ethiopia, they wanted to grow up and work for an NGO (a close second was tour guide). Because that is where the money is… in Aid. And when you looked around, it made a lot of sense. The best buildings in town and the best 4x4s on the highway were from the NGO’s; UN and UNICEF, Save the Children, USAid and the others. If you see a car with “UN” on the side, it will no doubt be a 200 series Land Cruiser covered in aerials and parked out front of the best hotel in town. In a remote town north of Waldiya, we saw the regional headquarters for USAid. It was obvious for miles because it was the 5 or 6 story glass building surrounded by huts which constituted the rest of town, and quizzically had street lighting hanging on faux-European style wrought iron poles… all in the middle of nowhere. Why the ostentatious show of wealth in the face of such poverty? Surely you would think this is counter-productive?


Teff growing in the fields south of Dessie. This is the grain that is used to make injera. It looks like a really short version of wheat and the grain itself is noticeably smaller


It is. Ethiopians intense cultural pride combined with their history of calamity and extreme aid dependence has created deep resentment that manifests as hostility aimed at foreigners, whom are seen as universally and unfathomably wealthy which is no doubt accurate in relative terms. So considering the wealth gap between aid giver and receiver and what is at stake; the well-dressed and probably young white foreigner who decides what projects get funded, who is lucky enough to receive aid and then how much, or in more simplistic terms, who suffers and how much, maybe even who dies and who doesn’t, all from the front seat of his US$250,000 Toyota (taxes are huge don’t forget) or big fancy office, maybe resentment and then anger are natural reactions?


A small-scale irrigation project most likely built by an NGO in the former region of Wollo. A tiny fraction of Ethiopia’s agriculture, about 4% (if I remember correctly…), is irrigated; meaning crop yields are low and highly susceptible to drought, which in an over-populated country with a subsistence economy leads to famine. Low tech (and therefore low cost and low maintenance) projects like this one apparently can make a huge difference to the people that can access them.


So back to Hayk, the town identified by the young Ethiopian guy we were talking to over coffee as the centre of delinquent rock-throwing activity.   It is in the north-east of it’s current province of Amhara Land, but formerly it was part of the dissolved region of Wollo that included Dessie and Waldiya and the towns to the north like Korem. This region is not particularly agriculturally productive yet is significantly over-populated and is prone to famine. As such it was ravaged by the famines of the 1980’s and it’s inhabitants subject to forced re-settlement during the Derg Communist Government.****


The new tar road north of Waldiya on the way to Mekele. The Chinese have built a new highway from Alamata which doesn’t seem to be on any maps yet.


I felt I was beginning to understand a little better anti-foreigner sentiment of Ethiopia. I didn’t forgive it, and sure as shit didn’t like it, but maybe I was starting to understand it. Our young Ethiopian mate assured us there would be no such issues heading north and he was right, north Waldiya everything was fine. As we had lost the morning to rain we stuck to the highway north and were rewarded with swift travel along new hotmix tar, with lots of mountain views and nice curves and no traffic, pedestrian or otherwise. We rolled into the neat and tidy town of Mekele, which is the gateway to the Danikil Depression, in the late afternoon and settled into a cheap hotel.


Twisties into the sunset


* This is just a joke, riding in Ethiopia really isn’t “worse than horrible”; in fact it can be quite nice. The place has lots of mountain roads with stunning vistas, ancient and interesting history, incredible churches, unique language and script and some tasty food (if questionable hygiene). But that said, travelling there can be a mixed bag and in some ways it can be very difficult if not outright unpleasant… If you travel there for any length of time in all likelihood you will have some great experiences and some quite horrible experiences.

** If you need to extend your Ethiopian Temporary Import Permit in Addis Ababa, the correct place is Customs HQ (N9° 00.876′ E38° 48.017′), Building C (the one at the back on the left) Office 102 (first door on the left after coming up the stairs). Go in there and set up a tent and lay out your sleeping bag, because things could take a while.

*** This is a great book and gives a well researched account of Ethiopia’s recent political, economic and social issues, including some worthwhile insights into their “aid industry”. Anyone interested in or wanting to learn more about Ethiopia will enjoy it.

**** A story for another time, but in a nutshell, people in overpopulated and famine prone areas (such as Wollo) during the 1980’s where physically loaded onto buses and dumped in uninhabited areas often in tropical disease prone lowland areas near the Sudan border. Many tens of thousands of people died of disease and starvation. It was one of Mengistu’s most devastating failures.



  • Avoid the highway between Debra Sina (about 190km north of Addis Ababa) and Waldiya (especially the bit between Dessie and Waldiya near Hayk) like the plague. Quite simply put – do not ride this road. It is heavily populated and the dirt road alternative in the highlands is far superior. If we had never ridden this road I’m sure our view of Ethiopia would be far more positive.
  • Stay off the highways as much as possible. We found that in remote areas, people were far friendlier and less prone to anti-foreigner hostility.
  • If you see some kids see you and pick up rocks to throw them, wave excitedly at them. They generally drop the rocks and wave back. This works well with smaller kids, say under 8 or so. Another option is to stand up on the pegs and point at them and shout like hell, they generally freeze up. Another good option is to swerve your bike at them – the little pricks will run. Don’t ask me how I know this.
  • When in a group, ride either very close together or very far apart. We found the person riding second always copped way more shit than the person riding first. So if riding in a group, try and get past hostile kids in a group so you are all past and gone by the time they work out what is going on, or spread out so far they don’t realise you are coming. Worst distance to ride is about 200m or so apart. Then they are alerted by the first bike and spot the second and have heaps of time to pick up rocks hatch their little plans.
  • Don’t ride too fast. In the populated areas, there are animals and people everywhere. In villages we would ride quite slowly, like 30-40kph, and in between we generally only sat on 60-70kph and only very occasionally got faster than that, like the road from Awash to Mille where we could sit on 100-110kph quite safely. But if there are people about, slow down. In our 6500kms riding in Ethiopia, I hit and killed a dog, Tan hit a calf at slow speed, we both nearly hit the same “pedestrian” and we both had many close calls with animals. It is not the place for riding hard.
  • If you hit an animal, either leave immediately and go to a police station, or just keep going. If you hit a person, most definitely do not stop, keep going and report it at the next police station. We saw them in all but the smallest villages.
  • Only schedule 300-350km per day in Ethiopia for a normal ~6hr day of riding. We had some big days of +400km but to achieve that you’ll be 8-10 hours in the saddle.

4 Comments on “Where the Scum of Your Character Will Come to the Surface

  1. Well,after reading this latest report, it convinces me that Ethiopia is one spot I have absolutely no desire in visiting, well done my friends..

    • Hey Dorian, yes for sure Ethiopia is super challenging. It has a lot of good but an awful lot of shit too making it a difficult place to travel.

  2. Hi nice writing style. Good luck with the rest of your trip. Hope you have healed by now.

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